Of the various utopian groups that had sprung up in 19th century America, the millenarian Oneida Community birthed in upstate New York under the charismatic leadership of John Humphrey Noyes is one of the most interesting. Beginning by subscribing to a radical religious doctrine that advocated free love, communism and the perfectionism, the community morphed into a major industrial force, a model of benevolent capitalism. The history of that transformation is the compelling tale told by Ellen Wayland-Smith, a descendant of Noyes, in Oneida: From Free Love Utopia to the Well-Set Table—An American Story.
Avoiding the easy sensationalism inherent in her subject, Wayland-Smith manages to treat the ideas of Noyes and his followers seriously, placing them squarely in the context of the times. If, in terms of religion, they challenged Christian orthodoxy, they certainly were not alone. If their faith in communal sharing challenged the conventional social and economic norms, challenge was in the zeitgeist. And while her explanations of some of their particular ideas, ideas like “complex marriage,” “sticky love” and “stirpiculture,” may leave the reader wondering, those explanations are both detailed and lucid, odd perhaps, titillating at times, but never salacious.
The insular radical community’s transition to innovative industrial giant in the hands of a dynamic younger generation is in some sense the classic American story. As the end of the century approached, conservative attitudes toward sexuality stigmatizing free love even when described euphemistically as “complex marriage” forced the Oneidans to adapt their ideas to the new norms. And with the normalization of their teachings about sex, came new ideas about the way they conducted the businesses that supported the community.
Wayland-Smith describes how Oneida Community, Limited grew from a sleepy manufacturer of traps and silk threads to the world leader in the production and sales of silverware under the innovative leadership of Pierrepont Noyes. She notes the company’s success through its emphasis on design, sales and advertising. And she is careful to focus on its excellent treatment of its work force—perhaps a nod back to the community’s original principles. Less emphasis is given to the company’s decline of fortunes as the 20th century came to a close.
Wayland-Smith, it seems, was born into a fascinating topic, and in Oneida: From Free Love Utopia to the Well-Set Table—An American Story, she has made the most of it.